Sing Along With Stalin

Can a song, a banner and a symbol keep Russians' minds off how tough their lives remain? Vladimir Putin has to hope so. Last week the Russian Parliament voted 381 to 51 to approve the president's choice for a national anthem. They also voted overwhelmingly in favor of his proposal to keep the white, blue and red national flag and the tsarist two-headed eagle as the national coat of arms. The Communist opposition leader, Gennady Zyuganov, particularly praised the "majestic" melody--an enthusiasm shared by none other than Joseph Stalin, who in 1943 picked it to replace the revolutionary hymn "Internationale" as the Soviet anthem.

Millions of Russians only wish they could get the Georgian dictator's pet tune out of their heads. They came close in 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up. Lyrics like "O Party of Lenin, the strength of the people, / To Communism's triumph lead us on!" gave the song an unintended sense of irony. Russia's first postcommunist president, Boris Yeltsin, chose a new anthem with the generic title "Patriotic Song," written by the 19th-century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka. It was anything but a hit. A lot of Russians were especially unhappy to watch their Olympic medalists in Sydney standing in silence during the playing of Glinka's wordless hymn.

Not that the problem is solved even now. The legislators haven't decided exactly how to update the communist anthem's lyrics. Many other Russians hate the whole idea. "I am categorically against the restoration of the Soviet anthem," Yeltsin told the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda in a rare interview. "My only associations with that anthem are party congresses, party conferences, where the power of party bureaucrats was strengthened and confirmed." Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn denounced the song's rehabilitation, as did many other survivors of the gulag. Two of the country's most famous living musicians, expatriate cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, coloratura soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, publicly vowed not to stand during the Stalinist anthem--although the new law makes remaining seated a crime. In lobbying for the song, Putin cited polls indicating that only 49 percent of Russians think it's a good choice.

Perhaps a rousing song will raise their spirits. Food, jobs and proper health care would be nice, too, of course, but those things are harder for a practically destitute government to produce by legislative fiat. As Zyuganov put it last week on national television: "When this music was heard around the planet, everyone stood up immediately and felt very proud." Proud or not, Russians will stand up again--or face the law.